Three Peaks Challenge – a stereotypical reaction to (encroaching) middle age

To the rugged outdoorsy types who frequent this blog, this entry will seem remarkably tame.  But all things must be seen in context.  When you live in London and have a demanding job, daily endurance challenges are generally restricted to squeezing into a Northern Line tube at rush hour or forcing yourself to climb the third escalator in a row (I’ll admit to occasional smugness, especially if I’ve got a heavy briefcase).

This year saw me and a number of school friends hit 40 so when one of them suggested that a group of us take on the Three Peaks Challenge for charity, he knew he was pushing at a psychological open door.  It helped that we were in the pub at the time, with a reduced resistance to stupid ideas.

The Three Peaks Challenge is simple – you have to climb the three highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales in 24 hours.  The peaks are Ben Nevis in Scotland, Scafell Pike in Northern England, and Snowdon in North Wales.  You can do it as part of an organised and guided group (there are charities taking groups on this trip most weekends) but you can also just do it yourselves, which was the option we went for.  You just need to find a willing driver – the lack of sleep for the walkers makes it potentially dangerous for them to do the driving as well.  Luckily my partner’s father was up for the challenge; as a long-distance truck driver, he’s used to driving through the night and bedding down in small spaces.

We chose a schedule that, due to the lighter summer evenings, would mean we weren’t climbing any of the peaks in the dark – starting Ben Nevis at 4pm and finishing around 10pm, driving to Scafell Pike and climbing between 4.30am and 8.30am, then finally Snowdon between 12pm and 4pm.

As the highest of the three peaks, it was no surprise that Ben Nevis was the toughest climb.  The path is pretty clear all the way up, and the number of people climbing on the weekends means it’s difficult to take a wrong turn – in fact you spend most of your time dodging people coming the other way.  However, the paths are steep and for much of the second half of the ascent, you’re climbing on loose rock, so for idiots like me who had done little training, it was a painful lesson.  The weather worsened before too long, and when we finally made the summit after 3 hours, the visibility was virtually zero, with driving rain and cold wind; so if you landed here by Googling “Ben Nevis summit views”, sorry to disappoint, we got no photos of the views.  We did however get photos in front of the snow field, to boost our adventurer credentials.

After a long descent which made me glad of my walking poles, we devoured some of the cold pasta dishes we’d packed and headed for Cumbria.  Rather optimistically, I donned my ear plugs and eye mask and reclined the seat.  But a Ford Galaxy is not Club World, and 4 hours of travel and about 15 minutes of sleep later, our bleary eyes were met by a beautiful dawn breaking over the hills as we drove along the shore road at Wastwater Lake, dodging petulant sheep on the approach to the start of the trail.

Scafell Pike is pretty steep from the word go, so with already tired legs and a lack of sleep, it was a daunting start, but after 45 minutes I found a comfortable pace, my confidence undoubtedly boosted by the glorious early morning sunshine.  There is a fair amount of scree scrambling on the way up Scafell Pike too, particularly the final third, but with the clear day and improved energy levels (must have timed my food intake better after Ben Nevis), summiting Scafell Pike seemed less of a chore.  That said, two hours later, we returned to the car as staggering drunks, our legs unwilling to expend valuable energy correcting the constant stumbles.

One more to go.  After another long and sleepless drive, we strapped on the boots for the final time.  In theory, Snowdon is the easiest of the three, and we reckoned we could complete it on adrenaline alone, especially as it was in our own backyard, having all grown up in North Wales.  It starts pretty gently, but after an hour or so, there are some incredibly steep sections, and by this time the cloud had descended and the rain had begun, so it was impossible to tell how much further we had to climb.  Climbing next to the tracks of the Snowdonia Mountain Railway can also be fairly dispiriting, as you occasionally see or hear the tourist train taking more sensible folk up to the summit in comfort, whilst you battle to find the reserves of energy to scramble up the last slopes.

While some day trippers gathered round the trig point at the summit for pictures, I barged into their shots, slammed my hand on it with a growl, and headed for the summit café.  Yes, there’s a café.  Not exactly Sherpa Tensing territory I realise, but I never said I was hard core, and I don’t think I’ll ever taste a better cup of tea.

After a quick photo opp and some mumbled congratulations, we started the descent and a couple of hours later, arrived back at “base camp” (OK, another café) as broken, but proud, men, having raised over £3000 for a North Wales cancer unit.

Top tips? Take walking poles, take more food than you think you’ll need and take spare socks.  Also, even if you’re reasonably fit, do at least some training if you want to enjoy it before it’s over.  Best tip of all: if you’re down the pub with friends, and one suggests the Three Peaks Challenge, fake a stomach bug and take refuge in the toilet until they’re safely back on film trivia.

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